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Between Science and Religion: Censorship and Intellectualism in 17th-Century Europe

On Wednesday, March 7th, Associate Professor of History Daniel Stolzenberg offered a 17th-century take on “freedom of the press” in an engaging talk for the Department of History Colloquium, contending that intellectualism could flourish in the age of papal censorship. Indeed, Stolzenberg argues that, contrary to what one might initially believe, papal censors were crucial to fostering intellectual thought in 17th-century Europe.

Stolzenberg began his research attempting to answer this question: if Protestants and Catholics despised each other so much in 17th-century Europe, why is there evidence of Protestant Dutch printers working with Catholic authorities to publish books? Of particular interest to Stolzenberg is Andreas Cellarius’ Celestial Atlas, which was submitted to Roman censors by a Dutch publisher before being published in 1660.

Celestial Atlas was significant because it was part of a larger debate surrounding whether the Earth existed in a heliocentric (Copernican) or geocentric system. The Catholic Church had a vested interest in discrediting the Copernican system, going so far as to censor any works that blatantly promoted it (as was the case with Galileo’s 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems).

Thus, it puzzled Stolzenberg why Roman censors allowed the publication of Celestial Atlas, which contained maps and textual annotation promoting heliocentrism.

Just how did Celestial Atlas acquire the Roman Inquisition’s imprimatur? Investigating further, Stolzenberg discovered that, in the book’s preface, Cellarius argued in favor of “cosmological neutrality.” That is to say, Cellarius introduced his book by making clear his intention to not favor heliocentrism or geocentrism; instead the book was intended for educational purposes only.

Of course, this was demonstrably untrue, given how most of the artistic depictions of heliocentrism and geocentrism in Celestial Atlas implicitly or explicitly favor the former over the latter. The book’s obvious pro-heliocentric outlook demonstrated to Stolzenberg that perhaps the Roman Inquisition wasn’t as interested in shutting down intellectualism in the late 17th-century as has been typically believed.

And indeed, that was exactly the case. Stolzenberg revealed how Protestant Dutch publishers and Roman Catholic censors were involved in a commercial and intellectual relationship that benefitted both sides. Censors were open to books like Celestial Atlas because many of them were cosmopolitan men-of-letters who sought to promulgate knowledge rather than restrict it, and Dutch publishers wanted access to the Italian market.  

Thus, a certain understanding was reached by the late 17th-century whereby Dutch authors could publish intellectual works so long as they included prefaces or introductions establishing their belief in cosmological neutrality and the primacy of the church’s worldview above what was actually written in the main text. This loophole allowed for the publication of bleeding-edge intellectual works that otherwise would not have passed inspection.

While it may seem paradoxical to us that such cosmopolitan men-of-letters would be placed so highly within the Roman Inquisition, Stolzenberg reminds us that 17th-century Dutch publishers and authors had no such trouble associating the holy office with learning. Far from being inhibitors to intellectual development, Roman censors acted as “cultural mediators between a world of theology and a world of scholarship.” Cellarius’ pro-Copernican atlas circulated because of, not in spite of Catholic censorship.

To assume that censorship focused solely on blocking books from publication makes the ahistorical argument that, without freedom of the press, the world of publishing was always restrictive. It seems instead that it could be just as open as it is today, given that you played by the rules and knew the right people.


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History


This page was last updated: March 12, 2018



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